Ashleigh Fleming had a brief stint as the launching chef of a restaurant near Raleigh, North Carolina, which opened in December 2019 but ran smack into the COVID wall and closed in March 2020. At that point, she decided she was done being a chef and started looking for a new job. She spent the summer of 2020 selling tacos out of her home a couple of days a week.
Then she found an interesting opportunity in Littleton, North Carolina, on LinkedIn and applied to be the general manager of what became the acclaimed Blue Jay Bistro. But she adamantly resisted the overtures to interview for the establishment’s chef position. But—ah, you know where this is going—she “fell absolutely in love with the project” and wound up with two jobs, managing director and executive chef.
Fleming is a reluctant culinary star. She didn’t want to follow her parents and grandparents into the restaurant business and first went to college to study art. Happily for a lot of diners, she ultimately fell for the kitchen and is a graduate of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America. At school, she found a mentor in Ken Arnone, a Certified Master Chef, who took her under his not insubstantial wing. “He has been the longest running constant influence in my professional life and someone I look at like a father,” she says.
But it hasn’t always been easy for her. “When I was coming up in kitchens, a lot of guys didn’t want to work with girls. One of my chefs was clear to me that I needed to do for myself, and not slow everyone else down ‘because I needed help.’”
Fleming is from Houston. I told her my theory that food in the South is repeatedly and invariably the most interesting American food, and asked why she thought that was?
“The South has a lot to say. There are so many stories and history chapters it’s like an onion,” she says. “It continues to evolve on top of those layers and things are still very much defined by territory. Collard greens are not the same in North Carolina or Mississippi or Texas or Louisiana. There are food and stories still unexplored and untold. There are histories that weren’t told because they weren’t always pretty. There are crops that have been wiped out because they weren’t what made the most money. But that all is changing, and people are paying more attention to the pulse of what’s happening and what we haven’t explored.”
These are her all-time five favorite meals.
I took a trip to Italy when I was in college with my brother and my mother. When we were in Florence, we took a day trip through some vineyards and stopped midday with our tour guide at what looked like a random house in the hills. I cannot tell you where we were, but I can tell you this is hands down one of the most memorable experiences I have ever had. All of the tables were outside under trees and, looking in the kitchen window, it was about four female cooks working in a tiny kitchen. There were cattle grazing in the back field and fresh herbs growing everywhere in the front. We had the most amazing steak basted with rosemary and butter. I have never had anything that tasted or felt like this since.
I had never had, nor have I since, an experience quite like Meadowood. The food was exceptional from start to finish. There was corn pudding with huitlacoche that was life changing. I will never forget the mignardise that came out at the end of the meal, which mimicked a forest on the plate. I still have a copy of the menu from that night, framed, on my dining room wall at home.
The entire experience, from getting out of the car to walking out at the end of the meal, was a study in the art of hospitality that I am convinced cannot be duplicated. Every step of service, menu presentation, creation of dishes, care of service, attention to detail—all of it is what we all wish we could provide. I have been to amazing restaurants, but Meadowood mastered the art of making each guest feel as though their individual presence is what matters. Unforgettable.
The Taste of Texas is the ultimate steakhouse dining experience in my hometown, Houston. The original location on Memorial Drive was such an institution that my elementary school would take field trips there! (If you didn’t grow up in Texas, I feel bad for you. Yes, we spend entire school history units on our own state’s history.)
My grandmother knew the Hendee family that owns Taste of Texas and thought very highly of them. When there was cause to celebrate something, or my grandmother wanted to take us out for an experience, we would go there. Guests select their own steaks from behind glass and are able to enjoy an obscenely amazing salad bar with a giant block of cheddar. Sometimes she and I would go together and get the Gold Burger—a big cheeseburger dripping with cheddar cheese done right. We would have the best times and conversation. I always loved this time with her. When I go back home, I still hit Taste of Texas and pick my steak.
It’s a toss-up when I retire whether I want to run a tiki bar or a taco truck. The Tonga Room is the stuff that dreams are made of for someone who has a thing for tiki culture. I love rum, have an assortment of tiki glasses and read a lot about tiki bars and cocktails. When I’m in San Francisco, I don’t care about much of anything but hitting the Tonga Room. It rains inside the restaurant! The food is good—the drinks are better! And the atmosphere is indescribable. I am pretty sure I spent the entire night mouth wide open like a kid on the greatest amusement park ride they’ve ever seen.
I come from a hospitality family, but all I wanted to do when I grew up was paint and draw. I never thought of what my parents did as a career for me. I was going to art school but ran out of tuition money about a year in and didn’t know what to do other than waiting tables. Somewhere around 22, I decided I wanted to pursue a career in hospitality, but in order to attend the Culinary Institute of America, I needed six months of professional kitchen experience. My dad told me to research a recipe that I wanted to make for dinner, and he would start to teach me how to cook it, so I could find a job. I don’t do easy, so I picked roasted halibut with basil pesto crust. He and I worked hard crafting this elaborate dinner. This was the first thing I made that I cared about, and I started to look at cooking differently. I remember making this with him, standing next to him in our tiny apartment, broiling the fish and browning my crust and my whole thought process started to change.
My Five Favorite Meals features the most cherished dining experiences of bartenders, chefs and celebrities.
Interview has been condensed and edited.